(2004) Charles Stross, Orbit, £12.99, hrdbk, 389pp, ISBN 1-841-49333-3
Though he has written many shorts before, this is Stross' debut novel. And what a debut it is.
Sometime in the not so distant future an artificial intelligence arrives from the future and miraculously sprinkles human societies among the nearby stars. These evolve independently, and differently, though are linked up when advance humans begin travelling the stars. The one thing the AI insists is that nobody plays with time (as it wishes to preserve its existence). Then on one planet, with a society that shuns advanced technology, aliens(?)arrive raining free technological gifts from orbit. The local rulers are not too pleased and a task force from a nearby system is sent to help. The task force plans to use a quasi-relativistic effect to lose a few days of time by swinging close around a star at speed and so arrive at the same time as the 'aliens' to catch them off guard. (You know the old Star Trek trick.) This use of relativity could be perceived by the all-powerful AI as using time travel albeit a limited use. Incurring the wrath of the AI is not what those from Earth want. So an Earth observer is sent to join the task force...
Stross paints an exhilarating future where virtually anything can happen and usually does. He conducts us on an energetic romp laced with humour - increasingly so as the book develops - demonstrating that he clearly knows how to entertain. He uses hard SF with confidence to underpin his space opera while his prose more than successfully carries us along: a mix that makes for a proverbial page-turner. Singularity Sky is as good as contemporary space opera gets, so reaffirming that the Brits seem to continue the late 1990s trend of being masters of this sub-genre. Of course the problem he has is that Charles Stross has, with this debut, set the bar so high for himself that he may have difficulty in maintaining the standard. However, if he succeeds in keeping this up then no doubt we will become to view the guy as one of SF's 21st century stalwarts.
This is at least the second spectacular hard SF novel to emerge in 2004, the other being Iain Banks' The Algebraist. Both are cut from similar cloth but perhaps different ends, so making meaningful comparisons impossible as to which is 'best'. Rather the question is will Stross have Banks' longevity for quality? Time will tell, but don't mention that to any AI from the future.
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